Big Lake residents seek petition support to save schoolhouse building

A public plea from the Big Lake Community Centre Association to Central Manitoulin council is posted within sight of the historic Big Lake Schoolhouse.

BIG LAKE – The Big Lake Community Association (BLCA) is encouraging all area residents to sign a petition calling for the municipality of Central Manitoulin to fix the Big Lake Schoolhouse, honour its lease with the association and protect the heritage of the building.

“I hope we will be able to present our petition to council and that we have another chance to discuss with them and keep the building open,” said Lois Keller, a member of the BLCA in reference to the petition the group has drafted and which is receiving a lot of support. “I’m aiming to have 200 signatures on the petition.”

Ms. Keller said the petition was drafted after, “the municipal property committee (which she noted is made up of council members) telling us one night they would have staff proceed with the assessment (of mould and engineering work for necessary repairs for the building at a cost of $12,000) and then council  changing their minds two nights later on this recommendation. Now they are asking for a lot more information, on our finances the past five years which, after consulting with a legal representative for input, we found this is not part of the lease agreement. We are hoping to sit down with the property committee and council to go over all of this.”

“All those years ago when Carnarvon was talking about amalgamating with Sandfield, Campbell and Big Lake, we were told not to worry—everything would be good and we weren’t going to lose the schoolhouse. Now it looks as if we are going to lose it. This has been my biggest concern,” said Sue Middaugh. “I can see the building ending up being someone’s new camp house. We have one piece of history in Big Lake and it is this school house.”

“This building is our one piece of history in Big Lake,” continued Ms. Middaugh. “The township put up all those fancy signs on the highway encouraging people to come to Big Lake. Now we  have the signs and we are going to lose our schoolhouse building.”  

Ms. Keller said, “this is the only historical building in the community and basically it is now our community centre.” She explained, “we are as close to Mindemoya as we are from Sandfield to use the community centre and, while we do make donations to other organizations and groups through our fundraising, the reason we fundraise is to keep the schoolhouse operating as a heritage building.” She noted the BLCA has not been able to carry out any fundraising during the pandemic.
Ms. Keller explained Central Manitoulin council is now asking the Big Lake School Association for a business plan. We can’t plan for someone to rent the building. We haven’t been able to operate and fundraise for the past couple of years (with the pandemic). I’m really disappointed in our area representatives on council not being supportive. One councillor is obviously, but the others are not in support.” 

“Over the years, through our fundraisers, we’ve been able to build the kitchen, made the building accessible, put in the playground, put a ramp into the building and built the shed here,” said Ms. Keller. “This has all been done through fundraising. It hasn’t cost the municipality anything.”

“It was the municipal building inspector who found the problems with the leaks in the roof; we weren’t using or in the building at the time,” said Ms. Keller. 

Ms. Middaugh noted that “Sandfield would never have had a fire department if not for this school being around. We raised thousands of dollars through fundraisers like fish fries, pancake breakfasts and donated funds toward the fire truck and the fire hall.”

“My biggest concern has always been that when the municipality was pushing for amalgamation years ago, we were worried that we would lose our schoolhouse and our identity—now here we are,” said Ms. Middaugh. “And for our area we have one councillor (Al Tribinevicius) on our side, but Rose (Diebolt) seems to have given up on us.”

The petition,  which was started by Terri Meeker reads, “the Big Lake schoolhouse is almost 100 years old. It was owned by a local family that donated it to the community through the township. Since then, the Big Lake Community Association has cared for the building and honoured it’s history while donating back to the community. The township paid its insurance (it is their building) and signed a 20 year lease with the BLCA (until 2038). In the spring of 2020 a  global pandemic hit and all fundraising activities were forced to end. Around the same time, the township of Central Manitoulin maintenance supervisor inspected the building and discovered damage to the roof caused by snow/ice buildup. At this time he did not report it to the township or the association. Since then the township refuses to contact their insurance company and is actively trying to dispose of the building and break the association’s lease, leaving all the history of past students and community members to fade away. Please support us by signing this petition to encourage the township to take the proper stapes and fix the building, therefore honouring their lease with the Big Lake Community Association and protecting the heritage of the building.”